Hercules begins with someone saying, “You think you know the truth about him? You know nothing!” That seems like an unnecessarily combative way to start a movie, but it does set the tone. This ain’t your father’s Hercules! Unless your father is Brett Ratner. Which, for all I know, he may well be.
In this brightly photographed comic-book-based version of the Greek myth, the legendary strongman (played by Dwayne Johnson) isn’t actually the heroic son of Zeus but a mortal mercenary who perpetuates the legends about himself because they’re good for publicity. He does have superhuman strength, though, for which there is no explanation if he’s not really a demigod.
He travels through ancient Greece with his band of merry men, saving villages from pirates, that sort of thing, pausing occasionally to have flashbacks to the time his wife and children got murdered in Athens. Herc’s cohorts include his nephew, Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), who doubles as his hype man (he’s the one who accused us of not knowing anything about Hercules at the beginning); Amphiaraus (Ian McShane, having fun), a soothsayer who foretells the future; Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), Herc’s right-hand man; mute lunatic Tydeus (Aksel Hennie); and Amazonian warrior Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal).
The posse takes a gig helping the city of Thrace, led by Lord Cotys (John Hurt), defeat its enemies, though you can bet there are double-crosses and reversals that line up approximately with the double-crosses and reversals from every other movie of this genre that you have seen.
As is customary in sword-and-sandals epics nowadays, everyone speaks in modern slang without a hint of antiquity, as when Amphiaraus predicts, “Tonight a spear of flame will pierce my heart. Is that not the most insane death you’ve ever heard of?” Or when Hercules says (I’m not making this up), “F***ing centaurs.”
Yes, it’s that kind of movie — not bad, exactly, just derivative, glib, and exceedingly ordinary. Will it surprise you to learn that the interesting idea of a celebrity Hercules who’s kind of a con artist isn’t explored as fully as it could have been? Or that the character who is too traumatized to speak will eventually speak? Or that Dwayne Johnson grunts and flexes and smiles a lot, reminding us that we love his charisma even though most of the movies he stars in aren’t very good?
While the screenplay (by first-timer Ryan Condal and animated-Disney-sequel veteran Evan Spiliotopoulos) is written in frivolous, cliche-ridden tones, Ratner, to his credit, does his best to treat it like a serious action movie. He has a willing cast and plenty of money at his disposal; the film certainly looks like a legitimate summer tentpole, and might actually come across as one if you ignored the pedestrian story and didn’t listen to anyone speak. Mostly it feels like a waste of time, and not in the good way that summer hours are meant to be wasted.
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